What Marketers Need to Consider About Targeted Ads as Google Halts FLoC Project

It remains to be seen if Topics lands any better with privacy advocates than FLoC did.

Google is replacing its replacement for third-party cookies, halting its controversial Federated Legion of Cohorts (FLoC) project.

In place of the replacement is a new project: Topics, an application programming interface (API) that would, like FLoC, allow advertisers to collect data and history from users for targeted advertising, albeit in more limited and perhaps more palatable way than FLoC or third-party cookies.

Google says it took feedback about FLoC, including extensive feedback from online privacy advocates, into consideration when pivoting projects.

"The design of Topics was informed by our learnings from the earlier FLoC trials,” Google’s Privacy Sandbox lead Ben Galbraith said in a press briefing ahead of today’s announcement. "And this resulted in a bunch of great feedback from the community, as I’m sure you know. As such, Topics replaces our FLoC proposal and I want to emphasize that this whole process of sharing a proposal, doing a trial, gathering feedback and then iterating on the designs — this is the whole open development process that we wanted for the Sandbox and really shows the process working as intended.”

It remains to be seen if Topics lands any better with privacy advocates than FLoC did. While Topics is designed to place greater limits on data and history collection than FLoC would have, it would still collect data and history, as third-party cookies did, which was among the chief objections to FLoC in the first place.

3rd-party Cookies and Alternatives: Implications for Marketers

Time will tell, but it is time now to establish digital marketing techniques that don't rely on third-party tracking.

With Topics, as it was with FloC, the question for the business and marketing communities is how much Google’s pivot away from third-party cookies affect online advertising and web design.

The elimination of third-party cookies will impact digital marketers who have come to rely on the technology to more effectively target and market to prospects. Pinpoint marketing and re-marketing will change – is changing.

With tracking and targeting becoming curtailed (cookies to FLoC was a limit on tracking and targeting and now FLoC to Topics is another), marketers are likely to experience a greater dependance on first-party tracking. In other words, marketers may need to reconsider traditional marketing methods that were available before third-party cookies existed, with a greater dependence on first-party data. They will also need to consider predictive analytics to guesstimate where their prospects are congregating so marketers can establish brand impressions and messaging.

Ultimately – sooner than later really – marketers will need to evaluate Topics to see if it represents the marketer's target market. Time will tell, but it is time now to establish digital marketing techniques that don't rely on third-party tracking.

Cookies, FLoC, and Topics

As much as marketers are fond of the ability to target ads, the elimination of third-party cookies is welcomed by privacy advocates.

FLoC was part of the Google Chrome web browser response to competitors like Mozilla Firefox and Apple Safari who planned to eliminate third-party cookies from their browsers over user privacy concerns.

As much as marketers are fond of the ability to target ads, the elimination of third-party cookies is welcomed by privacy advocates who, for example, find sneaker ads following them all over the internet after visiting a footwear website. The model raises concerns about what other history and data is being collected and how it could be used. Third-party cookies since the beginning of the consumer web were the engine for that type of advertising and therefore few ordinary web users will be disappointed that Google (and Mozilla, and Apple) are doing away with third-party cookies.

Where the Google plan to eliminate third-party cookies met resistance is that it came with a replacement, FLoC, that would have, in part, done the same thing as third-party cookies: namely collect data and browsing history for targeted advertising, albeit in a better-anonymized and perhaps more palatable way.

Instead of track individual user behavior like cookies do, FLoC would have put users into anonymized groups, or cohorts, with common behavior and interests and then let advertisers decide how to use the information. In effect, FLoC would have taken data collection from the individual level to the group level, trading away some specificity while retaining tracking. It’s an understandable tack from Google, which wants to match competitors on privacy but also does not want to lose fuel for its behemoth advertising engine.

What Topics Project Means for the Marketer

The ability to collect data and history for ad targeting has an unclear future.

FLoC, however, ultimately did not represent a great enough deviation from third-party cookies -- and affinity to anonymity -- to make it to market. Will Topics?

Topics, the API, appears to put more limits on tracking than FLoC did. It would retain the group, not individual, tracking from FLoC, but it would also limit the use of browsing history to only the last three weeks. Topics, however, still includes tracking, even if it's watered-down tracking, and the privacy community will have its say about that.

It’s up to the marketer to monitor to developments. As much as marketers have relied on targeted advertising in recent years, a key part of that engine, third-party cookies, is on its way out. Google has proposed one replacement, FLoC, and then taken it off the table. Only time will tell how the next replacement fares.

Marketers need to consider other advertising options, including traditional options, because the ability to collect data and history for ad targeting has an unclear future.

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